Stony Island Arts Bank: One Year Later


On October 3 it will have been a year since the Stony Island Arts Bank, one of the most remarkable new cultural projects on Chicago’s South Side in memory, opened its doors to the public. As the Arts Bank—the brainchild of the multimedia artist Theaster Gates—prepares to celebrate its first anniversary, the hybrid visual arts gallery, music venue and African-American heritage institution can pride itself on a solid start to a long life of service to its neighborhood and beyond.

The handsome granite Arts Bank building, designed by the prominent architect William Gibbons Uffendell and constructed in 1923 at 6760 S. Stony Island Ave., was once a stately savings-and-loan institution serving the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. But by the time Gates acquired the building in 2012, just weeks before it likely would have been demolished by the city, the bank was in shambles. 

Abandoned for nearly 30 years, the 17,000-square-foot structure had suffered decades of rain pouring in through holes in the ceiling; in the basement-level vault, where rows of metal safe-deposit boxes still gleamed, storm water stood chest-high. Nearly a third of the ornate coffered plasterwork on the ceiling of the first-floor great hall had crashed to the floor below. 

“People who live in this neighborhood walked past this building for 30 years, and saw it literally falling apart at their feet and above their heads,” says Amy Schachman, director of strategic operations at the Rebuild Foundation, the nonprofit group that oversees the Arts Bank and other Gates projects. “It’s a legacy of neglect but also a legacy of possibility.”

To keep that legacy clearly visible to visitors, Gates and his team of architects chose not to restore the building to its original pristine state, but rather to leave much of the damaged surfaces—including the coffered ceiling, interior columns and inner walls of the first floor—essentially untouched. Intermixed with those areas are several newly designed and constructed spaces, such as the high-ceilinged second-floor room that now houses the 16,000-volume Johnson Publishing Library, complete with a shelving system built in part with reclaimed railroad ties from the nearby tracks that give the neighborhood its name.

“By showing what was lost and what was salvageable, by keeping this mixture of old and new, we made an intentional decision to say, ‘Something can be this far gone and you can bring it back,’” Schachman says. “You can make it beautiful, and you can make it an amenity for the people who live in the neighborhood as well as those who come from farther away. If you can take a building this big, and this far gone, and bring it back, that’s a pretty strong testament to the work that we’re able to do across this neighborhood and that Theaster is doing throughout the South Side.”

Although the renovation is still not complete and may never be—“Never,” Schachman repeats, noting that the building is in a “constant state of reinvention” in response to Gates’s elastic vision, the capacity of the 12-person staff and the needs of the neighborhood—the Arts Bank has now settled into something like a comfortable routine. Open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from noon until 7 p.m., the Arts Bank offers a regular schedule of activities that include live music on Thursday afternoons and, on Fridays, House Tea, during which DJs spin music from the Frankie Knuckles collection of vinyl house music recordings housed on the third floor as visitors are treated to home-brewed tea. 

Patrons can view an ongoing rotation of outside exhibitions – such as a recent show of photographs by Ghanaian street photographer and portraitist James Barnor – as well as shows drawn from the various in-house collections, including over 60,000 glass lantern slides of art and architectural history, inherited from the University of Chicago; the Edward J. Williams collection of “negrobilia,” often mass-produced objects and artifacts with sometimes stereotypical images of African-Americans; and a collection of older books on black culture and history, recently decommissioned and donated to the Arts Bank by the DuSable High School library.

The Arts Bank features regular orientation sessions exploring the Johnson Publishing Library, which includes, among other things, bound editions of Ebony and Jet magazines. As Schachman puts it, “We’re always having people come in to look up the 1972 Ebony because their uncle’s picture was in it.”

What’s it like to work at the Arts Bank every day? “Wonderful,” says Demecina Beehn, outreach and engagement manager. “To be surrounded by such beauty and such amazing collections, to be able to meet the enthusiastic people who come in every day—it’s just breathtaking.” 

Special activities to commemorate the Bank’s first anniversary are in the works. These were not firmed up at press time, but Schachman promises “a lot of music and a lot of late nights.” She adds, “It’s hard to sum up concisely what we’re all about—hybridity is key,” Schachman explains. “There’s not a single answer that captures everything we’re trying to do. So when people ask that question when they’re right outside, we just say, ‘Come in. Figure out for yourself what’s interesting to you.’”

Top image: The first-floor main hall of the Stony Island Arts Bank features a mix of partially restored as well as newly designed spaces such as the Johnson Publishing Library (above). Photo: Kevin Nance